January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and while there is some good news to report, we have a long way to go on many fronts.
- Thanks to women getting regular pap smears, the incidence and death rate from cervical cancer—the leading cause of cancer deaths among women a century ago—have plummeted by 75%.
- However, the same virus that causes cervical cancer, the human papillomavirus (HPV) is now behind an increase in oral and genitourinary cancers.
- While a vaccine against HPV is available and recommended for girls and boys before they become sexually active (or before age 26), vaccination rates in the U.S are low. Only 32% of girls are covered--far from the goal of 80% coverage. In Australia, at 70% coverage, females-only HPV vaccination has substantially reduced HPV among women, but also among young heterosexual men.
- Unlike cervical cancer, ovarian and uterine cancers rates have not declined in the last century. The reason? We still lack reliable screening tests to detect these cancers. But that may soon change.
New Screening Tool
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Kimmel Cancer Center have developed a new DNA screening tool for ovarian and uterine cancers that holds promise. In a pilot study, DNA analysis of cervical fluid obtained during a routine Pap test, detected 100%of uterine cancers and 41% of ovarian cancers in a small group of women, with no false-positive results.
This is an improvement over current detection methods that lead to ambiguous results, which cause a lot of anxiety in patients and unnecessary diagnostic procedures and costs, say experts. The new test -- which is years away from being available clinically -- would cost less than $100 and perhaps substantially less after more research has been completed.
Currently, the presence of abnormal bleeding in postmenopausal women is one way uterine cancer can be detected before reaching advanced stages. But ovarian cancer typically presents with vague symptoms easily mistaken for other conditions, making early detection extremely difficult.
Therefore, even a screening test detecting ovarian cancer 40% of the time is far superior to what's available now, said the researchers.
Prevention and Checkups
The bottom line for women is to:
- Take steps to prevent HPV infection
- Follow current guidelines for regular pelvic exams and Pap smears.
- Females should begin having Pap tests at age 21, regardless of when they become sexually active.
- Women with normal test results can safely have Pap tests once every three years.
- Speak with your doctor about having an HPV test along with a Pap test. HPV tests actually find the "high risk" types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer.
- The HPV test/Pap test combination is now the recommended way to check for cervical cancer in women age 30 and older.
Even though screening for cervical cancer can occur less often, it is still important for you to see your healthcare provider annually for other female-related health care needs. Ask your provider what he or she recommends.
National Cervical Cancer Coalition